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Michael Quinn Patton of the Union Institute and Ricardo Millett of the W. K. Kellogg Foundation look at criteria that distinguish casual/informal notions of lessons learned from “high quality” lessons learned.

The ill-defined, trivial, and over-generalized ways in which the phrase “lessons learned” has come to be used challenges evaluators to distinguish between casual/informal notions of lessons learned and what we call “high quality” lessons learned. High-quality lessons learned contain knowledge that can be applied to future action and can be derived from screening according to specific criteria:

  1. Practice wisdom and experience of practitioners
  2. Experience from program participants/clients/intended beneficiaries
  3. Evaluation findings—patterns across programs
  4. Basic and applied research
  5. Expert opinion
  6. Cross-disciplinary connections and patterns
  7. Assessment of the importance of the lesson learned
  8. Strength of the connection to outcome attainment

The idea is that the greater the number of supporting sources for a lesson learned, the more rigorous the supporting evidence, and the greater the triangulation of supporting sources, the more confidence one has in the significance and meaningfulness of a lesson learned. Lessons learned with only one type of supporting evidence would be considered a “lessons learned hypothesis.” Nested within and cross-referenced to lessons learned will be the actual cases from which practice wisdom and evaluation findings have been drawn. A critical principle here is to maintain the contextual frame for lessons learned, that is, to keep lessons learned grounded in their context. For ongoing learning, the trick is to follow future supposed applications of lessons learned to test their wisdom in action.

Michael Quinn Patton
The Union Institute
Utilization-Focused Evaluation

Ricardo A. Millett
Director of Evaluation
W. K. Kellogg Foundation

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